Matthew’s Emmanuel: Messianic dance on the boundary lines

by Ellen Grabner

Ellen Grabner is a linguist, Stirling student and mother of two who is fascinated with big pictures and small details alike.

Our bodies are learning platforms, our actions not only expressions of, but pathways to knowledge of God. Our faith tradition asserts that God can be known spiritually and mentally; some of our ritual engagement highlights the value of physical, tactile engagement. Biblical testimony provides poignant witness to the significance of engaging God in the carnal reality of being human at crucial moments of identity formation. With a need to be continually reformed, we have everything to learn from tangible interaction with the incarnate person of God. Knowing God in our bones requires surrender into carnality and spirituality alike. Tangible encounter benefits knowledge acquisition and becomes mnemonic for individual and communal faith expression. Jacob’s transformational encounter at the borderline river echoes into our vocation into proximity with and engagement of the divine. The interaction between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16:13–28 invites us to engage the Christ with spirit, mind and body.

Matthew leaves no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah—the long-awaited fulfilment of divine purpose within the spiritual, mental and physical realities of earthly life.[1] Jesus is Emmanuel (Matt 1:23)—God with us in flesh and blood, sharing human carnality to the full.[2] 

With these foundational premises clearly established, we ought to anticipate that transformative dynamics, initiated in encounters with the carnally real Messiah, ultimately manifest in the interplay of divine and human physicality. In Matthew 16:13–28, a spiritually, mentally and physically rich interaction between Jesus and Peter confirms this expectation.

Matthew’s account is woven through with affirmation that the incarnate Jesus is fulfilment. Frequent editorial remarks (e.g. 1:22, 2:15.17, 2:23, 4:14) serve this authorial purpose, as well as Jesus’ reported self-understanding as anointed Davidic king with a mission to gather all nations.[3] Yet, Matthew’s consistent testimony to Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man” highlights Matthew’s focus on the carnal humanity of Jesus. At the narrative’s turning point, several strands of Matthean themes become apparent in the physical domain: symmetry and opposition in interplay; redirection and re-posturing; withdrawal, liminality and boundary-crossing; and the particular relationality between Jesus and Peter. [4],[5]

These themes become bodily manifest in the scene’s middle segment (16:21–24). In a place of geographical liminality, Jesus’ identity is taken to the very limits of the human mind, resulting in physical confrontation and bodily re-posturing—a momentary dance on the borderline of the humanly unthinkable. 

The scene is set in the area of Caesarea Philippi, a location outside the Jewish territory, bearing the name of a human king, and geographically nearly identical with the site of Dan, one of two idol worship sites in Israelite history (1 Kings 12:26–30). In this fringe location, the scene begins in symmetrical, trustful partnering of equals. Jesus’ and Peter’s mutual symmetrical appellations (16:16–17) are noteworthy here, as is Jesus’ act of entrusting Peter with leadership over the Christ’s newly forming church (16:18-19). Until this point in the narrative, Peter is framed by linguistic references to the “Son of Man” (16:13b) and the “Son of God” (16:16). However, Peter’s position—as represented by the second person pronoun “you” in 16:17b—is already alternatively located between “flesh and blood” on one side and the “Father in heaven” on the other. Human carnality appears in the verbal domain here as a potential source of wisdom, authority or manipulation of the human mind. Will Peter prove to be answerable to carnality that forms the starting place, or to divinity that lies ahead? How will he position himself with respect to the two—alongside, in symmetry or head-on, in opposition? 

Peter does both. After all, symmetry and opposition are not mutually exclusive options, demanding responsive postures of finality. Instead, the tension between them generates a dynamic that leads beyond the apparent initial gridlock, a point Matthew frequently makes in his use of syntactically parallel, yet semantically opposing statements that act as culmination of newly pronounced realities (e.g. 16:19, 16:25–26). 

Jesus’ lead changes the nature of the interaction. Concluding verbal engagement of his Messianic status (16:20), he orients the scene toward the visual, ushering in physicality (16:21). Mirroring Satan’s tempting act (4:8b), Jesus shows (16:21a) to his disciples the spiritual, mental and physical lay of the land of his missional intent (16:21–22): Jerusalem, suffering, chief priests surrounded by elders and scribes, the act of killing—a description of the familiar sacrificial ritual at the Temple. The unfamiliar and unexpected self-identification of Jesus as the one to be sacrificed instantly elevates the incarnate Jesus’ suitability as sacrifice over all spiritual or mental musings about his nature and significance. Mentally and spiritually, Jesus as sacrifice lies outside the borders of the embraceable.[6] Peter is caught between Jesus’ self-identification as Messiah who is the sacrificial offering swallowed by death, and his own conflicting mental position towards the newly named Messiah Son of  God  whose birthright trajectory is towards life—a precarious position of mental crisis that requires urgent action.

With Jesus’ carnality suddenly at the forefront of the interaction, Peter’s immediate response is bodily: he takes Jesus aside. In this singular act, Peter grabs Jesus, mirroring the reverse action of Jesus in their previous physically, mentally and spiritually intense encounter in Mat 14:22–33.[7] Peter orients Jesus toward the sidelines of the group’s familiar safety. Possibly still standing beside, not across from Jesus, grounded in the physical equivalent of the extreme mental and spiritual position Jesus has allocated to the two of them, Peter’s blood-and-flesh mind now directly confronts the divine. Despite his limited ability to verbalise more than a mere pronoun in reference to Jesus’ scandalous proposition (16:22c), Peter’s words now overstep a line. Again, opposition comes in the form of symmetry when Peter’s rebuke (16:22b) is promptly met with Jesus’ rebuke (16:23). The enemy, alluded to in 16:21a, is located in the fleshly anchored mind of Peter. This severe situation manifests here within the physical interaction, and is immediately addressed with severity.[8] Jesus directs his rebuke to Peter and Satan alike, before then separating one from the other and re-positioning Satan into subjugation behind himself (23a). After this brief moment where Jesus choreographs a pas de trois—a dance figure involving three performers—involving himself, Peter and Satan, the physically vibrant part of the scene concludes. We hear Jesus speaking to all disciples: this is a matter of life or death that demands a physically enacted alignment with Jesus on this road (16:25–26). Concluding the scene with a poignant reference to physical posture (16:28), Jesus’ words resonate as metaphorical question about embodied stance vis-à-vis the divine.  

This striking scene weaves together central Matthean themes in Jesus’ and Peter’s physical engagement. Their interaction is a dance, involving two embodied humans that are present to each other in physical, tangible engagement. The imagery of being held, even embraced is evident in linguistic and literal form where Peter is positioned between carnality and divinity, and the physical engagement is preceded and followed by verbal interaction.

The dance is bodily communication that goes beyond the limits of verbal interchange. Here, the divine is being fully engaged in physical action.[9] The dance requires manual touch, an aspect repeated here from Matthew 14: 22-33, but absent from Mark 6:45–52 and Luke 9:18–20. In both scenes, involving the same participants, the act of grasping for the other occurs in a designated place at some distance from others present, within a general setting of liminality or “sacred geography” that comes to define a ritual space.[10] 

The dance requires movement that is not only linear in its directionality, but rotational, highlighting not only the character of synchronicity in alignment, but also the dramatic change in trajectory where new gravitational forces become apparent. Ironically, the one who is turned here physically (16:23)—Jesus—is the one who is set firmly on the shared ground and can therefore afford flexibility. Despite Jesus’ command to Satan to move, Peter, the one who initiated the dance, seems stuck in his position. Like any dance, this one is dynamic negotiation of leadership, another prominent theme in the overall scene. Leadership is one of the two tonalities that define the motif; sacrifice the other.  

Being Emmanuel, the Messiah Jesus must also become the sacrifice unto life. Peter, the one who here lays hands on Jesus, is faced with the call to participate in the required act of sacrificing both Jesus and himself. Matthew again brings two seemingly divergent themes together. As they collide, new dynamics activate and manifest in the physical reality of interaction between divine and human carnality.

This article has been peer reviewed in line with editorial policies.   


[1] Richard T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 10-14.

[2] France, 56-58

[3] NT Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 481, 539.

[4] This is evident in many antithetical statements throughout the Matthean account, where syntactic symmetry carries semantic opposition. See e.g. Matt 5: 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44; 7:24-27; 16:19b, c; 25.26. Byrne highlights acceptance/rejection, or rule of God/rule of Satan as themes of confrontational dynamic. See Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Collegeville: Order of Saint Benedict, 2004), 11, 102-3.

[5] This theme receives immediate prominence in Jesus’ call to repentance—the very first word of his first public statement (Matt 4:17). Interestingly, the very next sentence (Matt 4:18) sees Jesus on the move, walking. 

[6] John Dunnill, Sacrifice and the Body. Biblical Anthropology and Christian Self-Understanding (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 3-6.

[7] The Greek verb proslambanó is a hapax legomenon in Matthew and in Mark’s parallel account (Mark 8:32).

[8] France, 634.

[9] Dunnill, ix, 21, 29.

[10] Dunnill, 21-22.

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